Hypertrophy Training Guide

10 Training Variables For Maximum Muscle Growth

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: August 29, 2023

Are you tired of putting in hours at the gym without seeing the muscle gains you’re after? It’s frustrating, but the solution might not be as complicated as you think.

You might just need to switch up your weightlifting program to focus on hypertrophy. This specialized training style targets muscle growth in a way that other routines don’t.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the principles of hypertrophy training and the ten training variables you need to optimize for maximum muscle gains. Get ready to unlock your full muscle-building potential!

Hypertrophy Training

What Is Hypertrophy Training?

Hypertrophy training is a workout program that focuses on maximizing muscle growth by increasing the size of muscle fibers.

This type of training shares similarities with strength training, as heavy resistance exercises are necessary for muscle growth. However, there are also differences between the two types of training.

Hypertrophy vs. Strength Training

Hypertrophy training emphasizes building muscles, while strength training prioritizes power. Bodybuilding is often associated with hypertrophy training, which aims to increase muscle size with symmetry and proportion to achieve an aesthetic physique.

Hypertrophy Training = Bodybuilding

This type of training is best for those who want to enhance their appearance. Although beginners will experience some increase in strength through hypertrophy training, they will not achieve the same level as they would through powerlifting.

Strength Training = Powerlifting

Powerlifting is associated with strength training, which aims to maximize power and lift as much weight as possible. Athletes in strength-based sports benefit from this type of training. Even though muscle size will increase, the focus is not on maximizing muscle growth because it doesn’t always correlate with strength.

It’s best to incorporate elements of both styles in your training program and transition between periods of growth and periods of strength, called periodization.

Hypertrophy vs Strength Training

Figure 1. A cartoon generalization of the outcomes of hypertrophy vs strength training.

Scientific Principles Of Hypertrophy Training

To optimize hypertrophy through training, it’s crucial to understand the process of muscle growth. Resistance training triggers three physical responses that lead to changes in muscle size: mechanical overload, muscle adaptation, and metabolic stress1.

Mechanical Overload

The main purpose of weight lifting is to apply a force that the muscles are not accustomed to, which is known as mechanical overload. This is achieved by adding resistance to the muscles while they are being stretched and contracted2.

To continue to see results, the load and/or intensity of the weight lifting must be increased over time, which is referred to as progressive overload.

Hypertrophy Training Overload

Figure 2. Milo of Greek mythology was said to lift a calf every day until it grew into a bull. This story is the perfect representation of progressive overload and muscle adaptation.

Muscle Adaptation

When muscles are overloaded, they get damaged at a microscopic level, causing an inflammatory response similar to fighting off an infection. However, the body sends specialized cells to repair the damaged tissue and rebuild the muscles slightly larger than before as a precaution against future damage3.

Metabolic Stress

Another way muscles grow is through metabolic stress, which is caused by an increase in metabolites like lactic acid and catabolic hormones such as cortisol and glucagon4. This stress triggers the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, causing cells to break down.

However, after the stress of the workout, the nervous system shifts back to an anabolic state, known as the “rest and digest” response. This parasympathetic nervous system response promotes cell regeneration and growth.

Hypertrophy Training Stress

Figure 3. A graphical representation of the catabolic to anabolic pendulum effect brought about by metabolic stress and proper intervention during the “anabolic window”.

How To Train For Hypertrophy

Several training variables can be adjusted to achieve the desired outcome of hypertrophy. These variables are load, reps, sets, volume, split, rest, exercises, tempo, technique, and failure.

In the following section, each of these variables will be explained in detail, including how to modify them to maximize muscle hypertrophy.

1. Load

When it comes to resistance training, the amount of weight lifted is called load. This is often expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM).

To see gains in muscle size and strength you must use relatively heavy weights. Specifically, hypertrophy training requires a load greater than 65% of your 1RM1.

2. Rep Range

If you don’t know your 1RM, that’s okay. There is a direct correlation between load and reps. That is, the higher the load, the lower the number of repetitions you can perform.

Moreover, the load and number of reps performed directly affect your muscle’s response to training. For example, low reps (1-5) result in maximum strength gains, while medium reps (6-12) result in maximum hypertrophy.

Additionally, performing 12-15 repetitions during exercise can result in non-functional hypertrophy, which means an increase in muscle size without a corresponding increase in strength. However, doing more than 15 reps primarily trains for muscular endurance, rather than building muscle strength or size.

To achieve hypertrophy, most sets should consist of 6-12 reps. It’s also beneficial to include a few sets with lower reps (3-5) and higher reps (12-15) to activate as many muscle fibers as possible.

Table 1. Hypertrophy Training Rep Ranges
Reps % 1RM Training Outcome
1 100% Strength
2 97% Strength
3 94% Strength
4 92% Strength
5 89% Strength
6 86% Hypertrophy (Functional)
7 83% Hypertrophy (Functional)
8 81% Hypertrophy (Functional)
9 78% Hypertrophy (Functional)
10 75% Hypertrophy (Functional)
11 73% Hypertrophy (Functional)
12 71% Hypertrophy (Functional)
13 70% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)
14 68% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)
15 67% Hypertrophy (Non-Functional)

3. Sets

Performing a set means doing consecutive reps without rest. Research shows that doing 4-6 sets per exercise leads to 83% more muscle hypertrophy than doing just one set5.

Generally, your workout routine should have 5 to 8 exercises. You can determine the total sets per workout by multiplying the number of sets and exercises. For instance, performing 5 sets of 6 different exercises equals 30 sets.

I suggest targeting 24-32 sets per workout for maximum hypertrophy training.

Hypertrophy Training Number Of Sets

Figure 4. The hypertrophic effect associated with the number of sets per exercise. Adapted from Krieger et al.

4. Training Volume

When you multiply the number of reps by the weight lifted for each set, you get training volume. This is the total weight lifted in a workout.

Training Volume = Total Sets x Reps x Load

As an example, let’s compare strength and hypertrophy workouts which both consist of 25 total sets. Since the load and reps differ between these workouts, they result in very different training volumes.

As you can see in the table below, even when the number of sets is the same, a hypertrophy workout results in 70% more training volume due to the higher rep range.

Table 2. Strength vs Hypertrophy Training Volume
  Strength Hypertrophy
Load (% 1RM) 88% 75%
Reps per Set 5 10
Total Sets 25 25
Training Volume 24,750 42,188

Based on an average 1RM of 225 lbs.

Increasing your total workload during exercise can lead to greater metabolic stress and an anabolic response, ultimately resulting in muscle hypertrophy.

However, it’s important to note that there is a limit to how much volume your body can handle before it becomes too much stress to recover from. This is similar to digging a hole that you can’t fill back in.

To prevent unwanted stress, it’s best to focus on intense workouts for 45-75 minutes and then get out of the gym to rest. Spending over 90 minutes in the gym is likely overdoing it (or simply talking too much).

Remember that you can train for a long time or train hard, but not both.

5. Training Split

In addition to training volume, the number of days you work out and the muscle groups you target each day are essential factors to consider. This is known as your workout split or training split.

While more training days can produce faster results, pushing yourself too hard can harm your recovery and lead to overtraining. To avoid this, it’s recommended to train individual muscle groups in each workout, which is sometimes called the “bro split workout.”

Despite its name, research shows that this approach lowers the risk of overtraining compared to a full-body 3-day split7. Aim to train one or two muscle groups per workout, 5 or 6 days per week, for optimal muscle growth.

Hypertrophy Training Workout Split

Figure 5: Comparison of 5-day single muscle split and 3-day total body split in terms of cumulative muscle damage (predicted levels of creatine kinase). Notice that muscle damage is additive even when training different muscles, but levels off by day 4. Adapted from Giechaskiel.

6. Rest Periods

The time you rest between sets is an often overlooked factor in your training regimen. Rest periods can be divided into short (less than 1 minute), medium (1-2 minutes), and long (more than 2 minutes).

Research has shown that resting for 3-5 minutes can lead to maximum power generation during the next set. On the other hand, resting for 1 minute or less can result in a larger anabolic response to training.

To achieve muscle hypertrophy, it is vital to strike a balance between long and short rest periods. For most sets, it is recommended to rest for 90 seconds to 2 minutes to promote muscle growth.

However, for sets using more than 90% of your one-rep max, it is acceptable to rest for 3 minutes or more. You can reduce your rest period to as little as 60 seconds for lower load sets.

7. Exercise Selection

The exercises you choose to do during your training can affect the results you achieve. Exercises can be categorized by how many joints they involve.

Compound exercises involve multiple joints, while isolation exercises involve only one joint. When training for muscle growth, it’s crucial to incorporate a combination of both compound and isolation exercises.

Compound Exercises

Performing multi-joint exercises can activate multiple muscle groups simultaneously. For instance, a barbell squat engages the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core. This leads to increased power output and triggers a more robust anabolic reaction.

Moreover, such exercises distribute the load evenly across different muscles without overtaxing any one muscle group.

Here are a few examples of compound exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Pull-Ups/Pulldowns
  • Shoulder Press

Isolation Exercises

When performing compound exercises, certain muscles may not be fully activated. This is where single-joint exercises come in, specifically targeting those muscles.

For instance, even though the triceps are involved in bench press, they don’t receive enough stimulation to grow significantly. It’s important to incorporate isolation exercises focusing on these secondary muscles to address this issue.

Here are a few examples of isolation exercises:

  • Bicep Curls
  • Tricep Extensions
  • Leg Extensions & Curls
  • Lateral Raises
  • Chest Flys
  • Lat Pullovers

8. Tempo

When performing an exercise, there are two phases: the eccentric (negative) and concentric (positive) phases, which involve lowering and raising the weight respectively. The tempo, or speed at which you move the weight during these phases, is determined by the number of seconds it takes to complete the movement.

Tempo can be categorized as slow (>3 seconds), moderate (1-3 seconds), or fast (<1 second), which corresponds to the number and type of muscle fibers used. While research results vary, most studies agree that a moderately slow tempo is optimal for muscle hypertrophy1.

This involves a slower eccentric phase followed by a moderate to fast concentric phase. Practically speaking, this means performing a 2-4 second negative phase followed by a 1-2 second positive phase.

Additionally, varying the tempo within these ranges can help recruit more muscle fibers during a workout.

9. Technique

When it comes to hypertrophy training, it’s not just about how much weight you lift but also how you lift it. Mindlessly moving the weight from one point to another won’t do the trick.

Instead, controlling the load to activate your target muscles is best. This means lifting the weight deliberately, without relying on excessive momentum, and moving through the full range of motion whenever possible.

Additionally, it’s essential to think about contracting the target muscle, known as the mind-muscle connection. Although it may sound like philosophical nonsense, research has shown that it actually activates more muscle fibers9.

10. Training To Failure

When you reach the point in a set where you cannot perform another repetition due to exhaustion, it is called muscular failure. This happens because your muscles run out of energy and need rest to recover.

Training to failure can be beneficial because it forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers as you tire. Research suggests this can help increase muscle growth, particularly in experienced weightlifters10.

However, it’s important not to overdo it and risk overtraining. Not every set needs to be taken to failure, and it’s a good idea to use this technique in a structured way over time.

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Hypertrophy Training Program

To summarize, there are 10 adjustable training variables for maximizing hypertrophy and muscle growth. The following are the optimal targets for each variable in a hypertrophy training program.

  • Lift heavy weights (70-90% of your one-rep max)
  • Aim to get 6-12 reps on most sets
  • Perform a total of 24-32 sets per workout
  • With this rep/set combination, your workouts should last 45-75 minutes
  • Train one or two muscle groups per workout, 5-6 days per week
  • Rest for 90-120 seconds between most sets
  • Perform a combination compound and isolation exercises
  • Use a tempo of 2-4 seconds on the negative and 1-2 seconds on the positive
  • Control the weight, minimize momentum, and use the full range of motion
  • Train to failure during phases when your goal is maximum hypertrophy

Of course, your workouts will be more effective if you also follow a proper nutrition plan. For muscle gain, you need a calorie surplus, plenty of protein, and healthy meals at the right times.

More Workouts & Training Programs

Congratulations! You have learned to modify ten training variables to achieve muscle growth. Adhering to this hypertrophy training regimen can maximize your workout sessions and build more muscle.

If you want to delve deeper into bodybuilding’s nutritional and training aspects, I recommend looking at the related articles listed below.

How to Set SMART Fitness Goals That Get Results

The Ultimate Guide to Lean Bulking

Simple Quiz to See If You Should Bulk or Cut

The Hardgainer’s Guide to Muscle Growth

Leveraging Flexion & Extension In Bodybuilding Exercises

HIIT vs. LISS Cardio for Fat Loss & Fitness

Bill Pearl’s High-Volume Bodybuilding Workout Routine

If you’re ready to explore new topics, browse my fitness articles below. From supplement guides to exercise tutorials and bodybuilding bios.

References
1) Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872.
2) Vandenburgh, HERMAN H. “Motion into mass: how does tension stimulate muscle growth?.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 19.5 Suppl (1987): S142-9.
3) Toigo, Marco, and Urs Boutellier. “New fundamental resistance exercise determinants of molecular and cellular muscle adaptations.” European journal of applied physiology 97.6 (2006): 643-663.
4) Goto, K. A. Z. U. S. H. I. G. E., et al. “The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 37.6 (2005): 955-963.
5) Krieger, James W. “Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.4 (2010): 1150-1159.
6) Smilios, Ilias, et al. “Hormonal responses after various resistance exercise protocols.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35.4 (2003): 644-654.
7) Giechaskiel, Barouch. “A Simple Creatine Kinase Model to Predict Recovery and Efficiency of Weight Lifting Programs.” Journal of Sports and Physical Education (2020): 38-45.
8) Willardson, Jeffrey M. “A brief review: factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 20.4 (2006): 978-984.
9) Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training.” European journal of applied physiology 116.3 (2016): 527-533.
10) Willardson, Jeffrey M. “The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21.2 (2007): 628.

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